Dear Juan Felipe Herrera,
On March 10, while leading an assembly at Davis Bilingual Elementary, you said, “Poetry isn’t something you make, poetry is something you do.” Because I teach creative writing at Davis through the UA Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program, I was in the audience that day—just one of the many adults (parents, teachers, visitors) who sat on the benches that flanked the cross-legged students, as excited to see you perform as the kids were. When you said those words, I caught them, and held them close to my heart, because they articulated what I strive to do as a creative writing instructor: to make writing participatory, to inspire students to flex their word muscles and build community, to listen to one another’s voices.
You were there that day sharing poems and stories you wrote for children, but I’m more familiar with your work for grown ups (although, of course, the line between kids and grown ups is a funny and fuzzy thing). Part of what inspires me about that work is how your poetry is not only participatory, but strives to be a catalyst for social transformation. In the English version of your bilingual “Poema por poema/Poem by Poem” you write:
you have a poem to offer
it is made of action – you must
search for it run
outside and give your life to it
when you find it walk it
back—blow upon it
carry it taller than the city where you live
I often wonder how I can hold space for ideas like this in elementary school classrooms. How can my teaching draw out the poems that live inside students, and how can those poems impact the world?
The Wednesday before the assembly, I facilitated a lesson on borderlands poetics in the third-grade class I co-teach with Saraiya Kanning. I wanted to get the students excited about your visit (organized, as it was, by my colleagues at the Poetry Center, Renee Angle and Aisha Sabatini Sloan). I wanted to teach what Poetry Everywhere calls chant poems and most poets I know call anaphora—a technique you use so brilliantly—and encourage code-switching in our students’ work (despite learning in both English and Spanish, they often default to writing in English). And I wanted to open up space for our students to celebrate living in the borderlands through poetry. While national political discourse often conceptualizes the border as a dividing line, those of us who live here know it can also be an ecotone, a place where different cultures overlap and hybridize. This ethos is embedded in your poetry and the poetry of César L. de León, the other writer I taught that day.
The lesson was more of an experiment for me than it was for the class: I’m a gring@ transplant from the Northeast, and I’m relatively new to teaching and the Spanish language (Señora Rivas, the classroom teacher, often gently corrects my pronunciations). Davis has a long tradition of celebrating Tucson’s Mexican-American and borderlands heritage already. Classes are taught in both English and Spanish, and many of the students are fully bilingual. The school garden is dedicated to Chicana labor organizer Dolores Huerta, and every year they have a celebration for Huerta’s co-founder of the United Farm Workers, César Chavez. One of the students plays trumpet in the school mariachi band--he’s so tiny his sombrero and instrument are both about the same size as he is! (Weren’t they incredible when they opened for you, by the way? I teared up as soon as the first soloist started singing, her canción pouring out across the auditorium.)
I started Wednesday’s lesson by talking about the concepts of “repeating” and “changing,” and how they’re important to chant poems. Then we danced your poem, “How to Make World Unity Salsa,” “mash[ing] the pulp” in imaginary molcajetes and throwing in “a burned tomato & a rock of garlic” to impart a delicious, smoky flavor of social justice. Dance felt like a perfect companion to this rhythmic poem and I like how, within the text, social change is represented as an act of labor, something you must do with dedication over and over again until desired results are, hopefully, achieved.
We read the first three stanzas of “New Mexica Meditation,” by south Texas writer César L. de León—each student had a handout with the poem on it, and I asked them to circle words that repeated and underline words that changed. The poem is written in Spanish and English, with alternating stanzas beginning with “Somos” and “We are,” followed by metaphors: “We are salt from the sea,” “Somos pluma de quetzal.” (I’m sure you’re familiar with this poem, as you wrote the introduction to Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduán Borderlands, the anthology I found it in. In that introduction, you write: “Within shifting borders–it is good to enter into these voice worlds–to stand, bow & listen in their presence.”)
After reading the poem together and talking about it, I pointed out Tucson on a map in relation to Mexico, and we named the states that surround Arizona, irrespective of national borders: California, New Mexico, Sonora. We looked at photographs of Tucson murals that incorporate Aztec symbolism and a kids’ mariachi band. Then we brainstormed things that make Tucson special because it’s so close to Mexico.
“Churros! Sonoran dogs! Mariachi!” the students exclaimed, and I scribbled down their words as quickly as I could.
“What about language? Is there somewhere in Tucson that has a Spanish name?” I asked, trying to expand the conversation beyond food and music. The students stared silently, and I continued to prompt them, “What neighborhood are we in right now?”
“Oh, oh! Barrio Anita,” a kid with a bowl-cut and mild demeanor said, a big smile on his face. “Yes, in Tucson we don’t just have neighborhoods, we have barrios, too!” I wrote “barrio” on the whiteboard. After a few more suggestions, I read over what the students had come up with. Our brainstorm became the basis of a poem, modeled after the first three stanzas of “New Mexica Meditation.”
This is what the students wrote:
Nuestra ciudad es un churro.
Nuestra ciudad es el mariachi.
Nuestra ciudad es Día de los Muertos.
Our city is metal from the rivers.
Our city is the eyes of the bobcat.
Our city is wood from the mesquite tree.
We are diamonds.
We are tamales.
Two languages, favorite foods, and visions of the animals and plants that surround our city. Agua, diamonds, and mariachi rhythms. And that last line, “Somos familia,” offered by a student in an excited voice as she brushed her hair out of her lit-up eyes. Like “How to Make World Unity Salsa,” “Tucson Meditation” gestures at building plurality and community in a too often divisive world. And it was written by third graders. Kids know.
Halfway through the Davis assembly, you directed the play version of your picture book, Upside Down Boy, selecting students to act in various roles and whispering their lines in their ears. Upside Down Boy is the story of your eighth year, when your parents stopped working as campesinos to settle in San Diego so you could go to school. Although school was taught in English, storybook Juanito only speaks Spanish. Will English let his voice “reach the ceiling, weave through it like grapevines”? While the book--in which Juanito gets an A on a poem, and sings in front of his class—focuses more on your teacher, Mrs. Sampson’s, encouragement of you, the play veered in a slightly different direction, becoming a celebration of bilingualism and an affirmation that every language is wonderful. “¡Les gustan todos los idiomas, les gusta inglés, les gusta español!” you declared. Because I’m familiar with your work, and how brave and political it is, this statement felt like a rallying cry, a desire to impart to the students the beauty and strength of languages and cultures that aren’t English or Anglo, that aren’t approved by the people in Washington, DC who pass laws and spread stereotypes.
After the play, you led the students in chanting, “You have a beautiful voice. Tengo una voz muy bonita.” At first you were the only one speaking, but soon the kids joined in, until the words reverberated across the auditorium. As the chant grew stronger, I imagined it escaping the double doors and flowing across the schoolyard. It would snake north through Tucson and spread across the United States, sneak into English-only schools and the thoughts of English-first-language speakers who complain about having to learn another tongue. I imagined it as a spell for a country that’s often reticent to accept that idiomas other than English can be languages of instruction in our schools and of conversation in our public lives.
In the Spanish version of your bilingual “Poema por poema/Poem by Poem” you write:
tienes una poema que ofrecer
está hecho de acción – debes
corriendo y darle tu vida
Your picture books, poems, activism, humor, and exuberance are testaments to a life lived this way, where poetry is action and action is poetry. As a new teacher and young writer, I strive to follow in your footsteps, to give my life to the poem of resistance and change inside me, and to share the lessons I have learned from you and other writers working in this transformative lineage (Gloria Anzaldúa, bells hooks, Ross Gay, and so many more) with the students I have the great fortune to teach.
I’d be proud to someday walk through the world with just a fraction of your light.
With gratitude // Con la gratitud,
Wren Awry is a New York-raised, Tucson-based writer. They like folklore, food, bookstores, and hiking; and volunteer with No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid on the U.S.-Mexico border. They're an editor at Tiny Donkey and Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness; and their essays and poems have been published by or are forthcoming from Rust + Moth, Essay Daily, Anarcho Geek Review, filmmakermagazine.com, Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, and Ghost City Press. They teach with the University of Arizona Poetry Center's Writing the Community program.